By Salman Tarik Kureshi
03 Oct 2014
As I arrived at a small dinner the other evening, I was greeted with the question: “What’s happening on the political front?” Somewhat smugly regarding myself the local drawing-room Guru (I write these articles, you see), I began to pontificate about the sovereignty of Parliament and of how the endless, senseless Islamabad Dharnas were bringing grief both to the country and to their own participants. I think I used former US VP Agnew’s phrase “nattering Nawabs of negativism” (rather out of context) regarding the Dharna leadership. As I uttered some overtly critical comments, the entire drawing-room transformed itself into a coven of rabid Khanistas. Even my attempts at what I regarded as objective analysis were greeted with accusations of my being a supporter of “Pakistan’s Hosni Mubarak” (which is, inter alia, something of an oxymoron).
I knew that at least two or three of my fellow guests there had not voted for the PTI and had in fact found Mr Imran Khan’s ‘softness’ towards for the Taliban exceedingly offensive. Therefore, the unanimity of the chorus against my expressed views was at least surprising. Later that night, even my wife berated me for having expressed such unfashionable opinions. Clearly, it seems, I am someone who doesn’t belong in the Naya Pakistan that is coming to birth in the nation’s drawing rooms.
A scholar who teaches Political Science and is working towards his Doctorate shrugged off my concerns. “This was an elite crowd, with a typically elite set of attitudes,” he said, “Scarcely representing even a minor fraction of the country’s population.” But I do wish it were as simple as that. I fear there are other processes at work here – not just some kind of Establishment Conspiracy or yet another London Plan (although there may be elements of both), but something more complex.
One of the seminal authorities on Communications was Edward Bernays, an American thinker in the earlier part of the 20th century. In his book Propaganda, he argued that the manipulation of public opinion is a necessary part of democracy. He called this scientific technique of opinion-moulding the “engineering of consent”.
“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organised habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country” (my italics) “…We are governed, our minds are moulded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of… In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons… who pull the wires which control the public mind.”
More recently, Bernays’ point was taken further forward by the philosophers Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman, in their book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. This book argues that the mass media of the United States “are effective and powerful ideological institutions that carry out a system-supportive propaganda function by reliance on market forces, internalized assumptions, and self-censorship, and without overt coercion”.
Chomsky and Herman assert that while it is normally thought that the press and other media are relentless in their search for truth, in point of fact, there is an underlying elite consensus that structures all facets of the news. Instead of challenging established power, the media work hard to discover and mirror its assumptions. The marketplace and the economics of publishing and broadcasting significantly shape the actual reporting of the news. News and entertainment companies dedicate themselves to profit within the established system. Their interests require that they tacitly support the governing assumptions of state and private power. Chomsky and Herman reveal how issues are framed and topics chosen, and conclude that modern mass media can best be understood in terms of a Bernays-type of Propaganda Model. Ironically, therefore, what could be regarded as the freest and richest media environment in the world, in a society that claims to favour dissent, in fact emerges as being conformist and prone to manipulation by power and pelf.
If this is the darker side of the manipulation of public opinion, there is a still darker, satanic side. In 1930s Germany, the Nazi propaganda-Meister Dr Joseph Goebbels held that the truth or otherwise of a propaganda narrative is irrelevant. “Credibility alone,” he averred, “must determine whether propaganda output should be true or false.” His notorious dictum of the ‘Big Lie’, ie that a lie told often enough becomes the truth, follows from this.
Consider the twin Islamabad Dharnas, where the same sets of utterances have been endlessly reiterated, interspersed with chants of the “Go, Nawaz, go” mantra. Can we, with any degree of honesty, contend that Goebbels’ infamous and deadly dictum has not been at play here? Have we not heard the same sets of truths, half-truths, and outright fabrications repeated ad nauseum night after night after night after night… until even the most sceptical among us has begun to think that, maybe, there is something in it, after all?
The power of this Goebellian repetition is immensely compounded by the new reality of today’s electronic media. Non-stop 24/7 projection of the Dharnas on each of twenty-two News Channels is a dimension unknown to Dr Goebbels and his cohorts, and not yet fully foreseen even by Chomsky and Herman. With this kind of verbal carpet bombing, night after night, primetime after primetime, truth and moderation are bound to be casualties.
To return to my dinner party companions, they would need to have been comatose not to be effected by what the media elite has wrought upon us – the harangues of the likes of Sheikh Rashid, among other horrors. However, it would be foolish not to realise that there is something further at work here. What has been spewing out of these Dharnas is not just empty bombast. Somewhere along the way, it seems, they have found raw nerves that have been touched. Somewhere, deep discontents have been stirred up towards the surface – the feeling that things are somehow terribly wrong. It is this sentiment that is honing the discontent.
The Zardari-Gillani-Ashraf years are perceived as years of negligible governance and immense corruption. The first of the Sharif years is perceived as lacking any progress whatsoever. The brief show of unity at the beginning of the joint parliamentary session was heartening; but it too quickly degenerated into petty squabbling and name-calling.
It is hardly surprising that there is anger, and anxiety, even if these are still primarily about elite issues, like the rightful rage of First Class Passengers at their flight being delayed on account of parliamentarian Rahman Malik. As regards the non-elite multitudes, can we even begin to comprehend the issues that agitate them?